A day on the riverboat

I wake up with the first lights of dawn in a different world. The whitish cloudy sky reveals dark green dense forest on the riverbanks, no sign of human settlement.  Only a more careful look reveals once in a while a small isolated wooden hut on stilts. I can't help but thinking of how on earth the people that live there have chosen that particular spot of forest to live...which criteria made them settle down exactly there and not elsewhere.

People on the boat slowly climb out of their hammocks and there is already an neat line in front of the toilets. Some women have wet hair, I wonder which of the toilets are equipped with a shower. I haven't seen one the night before. So I stand in the line in front of the one I haven't used, just to find out that all are equipped with showers, on the roof...

The recreio glides slowly over the brown water. It seems clean here, without the greasy touch of the port of Manaus. On one wall of the boat a hand-painted sign asks the passengers to respect nature and not to throw waste in the water. Sadly I notice that the upper deck is covered with empty beer cans and plastic glasses from the night before, being thrown overboard by the strong wind. I pick up some while waiting for breakfast, conscious that it probably won't make a big difference but anyway...
The recreio navigates alternatively near one or the other riverbank, according to water depth. The thick forest canopy is fascinating, sadly the noise of our engine covers up every possible sound, I feel like watching a mute film sitting on a hell machine...couples of aras and parrots fly over our heads their cries covered by the noise.
We pass through the indigenous territory of the Waimiri-Atraoari, big wooden signs on the riverbanks and on apparently abandoned stilted wooden houses advice that it is forbidden to stop, film and photograph. The recreios are only allowed to pass through the area. People on the boat look at the signs with a mix of apprehension and curiosity, one man says that maybe the Indios are there inside the closed hut vigilating us...
After a while the rio Negro broadens up into a big lagoon.

The loud bell calling for breakfast gets even the late sleepers out of their hammocks, just the time to eat, then many doze away again.
Hot coffee, milk, tapioca pancakes, cake, bread, ham and cheese, plenty of it, and free coffee available all morning until lunch.
I spend the rest of the morning watching the forest and chatting with some hammock neighbors. Chico and Castelo show up once in a while to exchange a few words. 
People on the boat have predominantly indigenous features. The boys have tattooed arms and backs and wear sleeveless shirts, long baggy bermudas, rapperstyle big silver and gold chains. When my eyes cross the gaze of these urban jungle warriors their faces open up in broad smiles.

When the sun finally lures out of the clouds it gets really hot all of a sudden. I take advantage of the heat to dry my stuff that's still wet from the rain in Manaus (not imagining that this will be one of my hopeless main activities during the whole trip).
Once in a while a tiny canoe with a rudimentary motor (later I'll learn they are called 'rabeta') resembling a lot the 'naked' fridge motors we used to build compressors for airbrushes in my youth, approaches our boat. Just the time to take on a lonely passenger and some luggage, before getting swallowed up by the forest again.
With daylight some passengers become more sociable and soon I'm involved in animated conversations. 
They ask me where we are going, but don't seem to be familiar with Xixuau. 
The recreio runs the line Manaus-Barcelos, which is the biggest municipality of the Amazon State on the right border of the rio Negro, about 12 hours of navigation farther than Moura and almost 500 km from Manaus (by river). A lot of the people on board do regularly these trips. Inhabitants of small communities without infrastructure go to sell their merchandise at the markets in Manaus and travel back with supplies. Banks, hospitals, public offices etc., everything that has to do with the relationship individual-state has to be performed in Manaus. 

A very animated group, one of them is Castelo, talks about a pirate attack that happened just the week before to one of these recreios. Everybody has some detail to add to the gruesome story, as a lot of them were effectively victims of the attack. While attacks like this are not uncommon in other parts of Brazil, it was one of the first times something like this happened on this line and probably talking about it was useful to exorcise the fear. No way to avoid traveling on the recreios for these people, and if they need to take money or other valuables to Manaus it has to be this way.
The attack had been perpetrated on the way Barcelos-Manaus. The pirates had been traveling camouflaged as passengers, scattered over the three decks of the riverboat. 4 or 5 hours before Manaus they had taken out their guns announcing the raid. Passengers and crew were forced out of their clothes and, men and women alike, in underwear closed up in the machine room. Some members of the crew were shot in the legs and other men beaten up badly without reason, as nobody had tried to react. It had been an unreasonably violent attack. Wallets, cameras and jewels for a value of about 3.000 reais were stolen, not really a lot for the risk involved. 
But they certainly scared the shit out of the river people, more than of the few tourists that were aboard.
I spend the rest of the morning with the botanists, exchanging technical information about cameras, lenses, Gps. They show me the maps their tutor has given them of the buritizal area. Nobody seems to know how far it is in km from Xixuau community. It looks very vast on the map, starting from below the Ecuador line and expanding far to the north.

In the open part of our deck loud popular music together with the motor's noise makes talking almost impossible. Some of the male passengers hang around, already heavy on beer in the morning. The 'bar' consists in a big cooling trunk with ice and some plastic bags with bread, ham and cheese hanging on a wall. A member of the crew, a guy with indio features in his thirties with incredible light blue almost transparent eyes and small chubby hands supplies the passengers with canned beer, soft drinks and sandwiches.
photo M. Falkendorf
After a generous lunch we still have three hours to our first destination. I spend some time playing with my little hammock neighbor, his sister and their very young mom. They fell victims of a scam at Manaus port. The mother had tried to buy a wristwatch from one of the numerous chinese peddlers, and he had fled with all her money, 20 reais. Once in a while one of the other passengers buys sweets and soft drinks for her children. A kind of comradeship between strangers reigns on the boat during navigation. As a man from Parintins tells me: the enemy lures only in the ports. After some attempts to understand the cute little boy's name I give up. He is very interested in my camera and I try to teach him to take pictures, with little success...but a lot of fun. When I take out my binoculars he get's crazy about the big big world inside.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely! I always wonder that myself....how in the world do they get to and from places in such isolated areas? Riverboats are wonderful.